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IN AMAZONIA-One afternoon with Father Bendoraitis

By R. JOHN RAPSYS.

Dr. Bendoraitis with Croeo indians. Rondonia, Brazil, 1965.
Dr. Bendoraitis with Croeo indians. Rondonia, Brazil, 1965.

It’s two o’clock on a hot and humid afternoon in July 1973. I’m in a hospital, not as a patient, but as an observer. The nurse opens the door for an emaciated man, who shuffles into the consulting room, with a look of resignation on his face.

“That’s malaria. You can tell from the way the patient walks. The man has had five relapses; same as I,” says Father Ferdinand Alexander Bendoraitis, MD. He’s the director of a tidy hospital, with only 40 beds, in Guajara-Mirim. It’s a small Brazilian town on the Bolivian frontier, in the Rondonia territory – the Brazilian Wild West.

The next three patients are also malaria victims. Then an Indian mother with five small children is ushered in. Dr. Bendoraitis – known throughout Rondonia simply as Padre Medico, greets everyone by name, makes small talk with the mother and jokes with the children.

The kids spot a stuffed squirrel monkey on top of a cabinet. Is it alive? “I won’t let that monkey get you,” says the doctor, making squealing monkey sounds and monkey faces while scratching his ribs. A burst of five big smiles appears on five brown faces.

One boy looks as if he carried a cantaloupe in his stomach. “Intestinal parasites – worms,” says the doctor, “confirmed by a lab report.” One girl, only three years old, has malaria already. Another has whooping cough. “Well, at least two of the other children are as healthy as the rosy mangos in my garden,” says the doctor happily. Next come two more patients with malaria and one with hepatitis. An old woman with a horrendous sore on her arm is immediately sent to the lab. And so it goes, patient after patient… Some are given injections or pills, others get prescriptions, one or two are hospitalized.

Malaria, worms, leprosy

“Our biggest problems here are malaria, intestinal parasites, malnutrition and virus infections,” says Dr. Bendoraitis. “Although, God knows, we also have plenty of the more exotic ailments: amoebic dysentery, leishmaniasis, teresium, and leprosy.”

A specialist in tropical diseases, he is well-prepared to cope with them.

The small window air conditioner suddenly stops its lazy whir. The lights go out too. “The town generator is on the blink again,” says the doctor.

In Amazonia, little girls play with tamed wild animals instead of dolls. This Urudan girl holds a baby spider monkey. Other popular pets include the raccoon-like coati mundi, terecay turtles, and various birds. Rondonia, Brazil, 1973.
In Amazonia, little girls play with tamed wild animals instead of dolls. This Urudan girl holds a baby spider monkey. Other popular pets include the raccoon-like coati mundi, terecay turtles, and various birds. Rondonia, Brazil, 1973.

“That happens quite often, but normally we have electricity until midnight. Then the hospital’s emergency generator takes over,” he explains. Some ten minutes later the lights come on. The air conditioner kicks in too, but we’re soaked with sweat. The doctor changes shirts for the third time today. Two more to go…

Just then, a young black man brings in his little daughter. Blood oozes through a dirty handkerchief. There’s a nasty three-inch cut below her right knee. Dr. Bendoraitis cleans the wound, injects a local anesthetic, and starts suturing. He first works with a straight needle, then a curved one. The young girl starts to whimper, and tiny tearful beads course down her cheeks. The father dabs her face and gently strokes her hair. The doctor ties off the sixth suture, the nurse bandages the wound and gives the girl a shot of penicillin. The little ordeal is over.

The afternoon is halfway over too. Dr. Rey, the Padre Medico’s Bolivian assistant, joins us for a cafezinho– the ever-present small cup of very black, very strong, and very sweet coffee that Brazilians cannot do without.

Patients from two countries

Today Drs. Bendoraitis and Rey see 90 out-patients. That’s about the daily average. Some 15% come from Bolivia, which lies just across the Mamore River on the edge of town.

The remainder are a cross section of the Brazilian population: white, black, Indian, Oriental, and every blend in between.

Father Bendoraitis holds Mass for his far-flung parishioners, living on the banks of jungle rivers. Rondonia, Brazil, 1968.
Father Bendoraitis holds Mass for his far-flung parishioners, living on the banks of jungle rivers. Rondonia, Brazil, 1968.

“The vast majority of my patients are exceedingly poor,” says Dr. Bendoraitis. “Drugs and all treatment are free, but those who can afford it are asked to pay ten cruzeiros per visit.” That’s only a dollar and sixty cents American. But I see in the open index file, scores of cards marked with yellow tabs… those that cannot afford even that much.

Dr. Bendoraitis gets called out for an emergency. I have another cafezinho and reflect. Born in Lithuania, Dr. Bendoraitis was sent to live with his aunt in Paris, while still a young boy. He finished his medical studies there just as World War II was ending. He specialized in dermatology and later attended a school for medical missionaries to study tropical diseases. The doctor had a lucrative practice in Paris. However, that still left him unfulfilled. So he enrolled in a Catholic seminary and was ordained a priest in 1960. He was 41 years old.

“I have always wanted to be a missionary,” he had told me earlier, “but my parents were set against it.”

Rats, bats, and snakes

This upended giant anteater, with a sticky 10-inch tongue, used to eat termites and ants. And now the Paacas Novos Indians are going to eat him – guts and all. Sister Mary Xavier is on the right. Rondonia, Brazil, 1966.
This upended giant anteater, with a sticky 10-inch tongue, used to eat termites and ants. And now the Paacas Novos Indians are going to eat him – guts and all. Sister Mary Xavier is on the right. Rondonia, Brazil, 1966.

The newly minted Father Bendoraitis came to Guajara-Mirim in 1962. He started a one-room out-patient clinic in a crumbling adobe, often shared with rats, bats, and even the occasional snake. A few years later, the local diocese turned over to him several modest but much more livable buildings on the outskirts of town. But the dream of Dr. Bendoraitis has always been of a small hospital of his own.

In the meantime, with limited supplies and shaky finances, but with superhuman energy, Dr. Bendoraitis – the only doctor in an area more than twice the size of Lithuania – went to work.

Within six years he reduced the infant mortality rate from 78% to 27%, saved several starving and sick Indian tribes from extinction, and established the first kindergarten for Indian children in Brazil. Dr. Bendoraitis stopped cholera and scarlet fever epidemics in Bolivia and Brazil, and set up the first radio station in the area to teach the many illiterates the basics of first aid and hygiene.

High honors have come to him from both Brazilian and Bolivian governments. And he was one of only three persons from the town to be invited to a grand reception when the president of Brazil visited the territorial capital of Porto Velho.

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First kindergarten for Indian children in Brazil, established by Dr. Bendoraitis in 1967. The first class had 36 children. Sagarana, Rondonia, 1969

I only learned of these things from Sister Mary Xavier (Emilija Sakenaite), also a Lithuanian and a longtime resident of France. An experienced registered nurse, she joined Dr. Bendoraitis in 1963. At age 50, she stepped into a world unknown.

Perils in the jungle

Dr. Bendoraitis’ floating clinic, the “Lituania”. The main deck housed the office and dental chair, consulting room, three hospital beds, galley (kitchen), and 2 toilets. The upper deck consisted of the dining area, four rooms with two beds and a veranda
Dr. Bendoraitis’ floating clinic, the “Lituania”. The main deck housed the office and dental chair, consulting room, three hospital beds, galley (kitchen), and 2 toilets. The upper deck consisted of the dining area, four rooms with two beds and a veranda

The Padre Medico was not very expansive when it came to talking about his accomplishments. But that afternoon he did tell me about some of the close calls he has had.

The author (R. John Rapsys) and Indians from three different tribes who came to visit Dr. Bendoraitis. From left: Paacas Novos, Oroeo, and Uraramchen. Guajara-Mirim, 1973
The author (R. John Rapsys) and Indians from three different tribes who came to visit Dr. Bendoraitis. From left: Paacas Novos, Oroeo, and Uraramchen. Guajara-Mirim, 1973

Once, while comatose from malaria, deep in the jungle, the Paacas Novos Indians saved his life by pulling him in a dugout canoe through swamps and dried-out, muddy river beds until they reached town. Another time, he drifted helplessly for several days down a river after his canoe’s outboard motor had blown up. A lone seringueiro, or rubber tapper, came upon him accidentally and threw a line before the wayward canoe had a chance to tumble over a waterfall just ahead.

Then came perhaps the most miraculous occurrence. In 1970, a small Cessna 180 plane deposited Dr. Bendoraitis on the dusty clearing across from his clinic. He was to pick up some drugs and fly to another jungle hamlet. But a seriously ill patient needed his immediate attention, so he told the pilot not to wait. The plane took off and soon crashed, killing all three men on board.

“Long live God!” the doctor exulted, recalling these incidents.

Urumbuni, Urudantribes on canvas

Sister Mary Xavier in neighboring Guayaramerin, Bolivia, 1973.
Sister Mary Xavier in neighboring Guayaramerin, Bolivia, 1973.

Later that afternoon, Dr. Bendoraitis and I walked through the hallway of the one-story hospital. The walls are decorated with colorful paintings of Indians and jungle life. Paacas Novos, Urumbuni, Urudan, Oroeo, Uraramchen, Makurapi…the gathering of tribes on the canvas. Many have been decimated; others gone forever. “The price of so-called civilization has always been high in Brazil,” the doctor noted sadly.

“That’s the work of Roberto Antezana,” says Dr. Bendoraitis, sweeping a hand toward the paintings. “A tremendously talented young man, though he has no formal art training,” and the doctor adds, “Roberto also did the stained-glass windows for our hospital chapel, including the window with St. Casimir, Lithuania’s patron saint.”

Hospital, help is under way

The good doctor takes me through the wards – general, maternity, pediatrics and shows me the laboratory, pharmacy, dental clinic, and the records office. Some are functioning, but others have yet to be fully outfitted. Everyone thinks I’m a visiting doctor from America.

“We started building the hospital in 1970 and it grew brick by brick, as funds slowly materialized,” says Dr. Bendoraitis. “Some donations came from charitable organizations and drug manufacturers, and the Brazilian government turned over to us a rather rusty ambulance. But the biggest support came from my colleagues in France and Germany.” Hundreds of individuals around the world made significant contributions, including Lithuanian communities in the United States, the doctor pointed out.

They are all listed in the “Golden Book” of donors and supporters. What the doctor didn’t say, I find out, is that he put every penny of his considerable inheritance from his wealthy aunt into the project.

Volunteers from all over

Now in his mid-50’s, the Padre Medico finally has his dream come true–a hospital at last, although a full third is still to be built. “We’re always strapped for cash, but we’ll get there,” he says optimistically.

And what a veritable little United Nations this place is. Besides the Brazilians and Bolivians on permanent hospital staff, there are, or have been, registered nurses and lab technicians from the United States, Canada, France, Germany, and Italy – working for nothing more than room and board. They stay for several months or even longer, as their time permits.

Dr. Bendoraitis proudly introduces me to Antonia Suhadolnik, a dedicated volunteer and a registered nurse from Yugoslavia. Her distinction, she has been with him the longest – for more than two years.

He also mentions a Swiss ophthalmologist, who spends his vacations here every year, donating his time and skills to deal with trachoma, teresium (growths of malignant flesh on the eyelids), and other diseases of the eye.

Boat-clinic plies jungle rivers

Dr. Bendoraitis’ fiefdom includes the Colonia Sagarana, an agricultural commune he established in 1965 for several Indian tribes on the verge of starvation, and a dispensary in the jungle village of Yata.

Then there’s a double-decker boat, named “Lituania,” which has been converted into a floating clinic. The boat, with Dr. Bendoraitis on board, visits remote Indian villages and caboclo (mostly mixed-race) settlements for up to four months out of the year. The floating clinic logs about 2800 miles up and down meandering jungle rivers like the Mamore, Guapore, and Paacas Novos. The doctor also has his eye on Ilha das Flores (Island of Flowers), on the Guapore, where he plans to establish a leper colony.

As a priest, Dr. Bendoraitis starts each day with a 5:30 a.m. Mass and ministers to the spiritual needs of his far-flung parishioners. But most of his time is devoted to medicine, in helping the sick and in preventing disease. “It’s a great combination,” he beams, “since I am privileged to take care of both body and soul.”

“Charity and Love”

“Come, I’ll show you my brick factory,” says Dr. Bendoraitis. “It helped build our hospital and now it helps pay for medical supplies, for which we spent about $60,000 last year. Besides, it provides steady work for 20 men.”

As we walk out into the still-sweltering late afternoon sun, I glance at the hospital’s emblem on the whitewashed wall by the main entrance. It’s the Virgin Mary in traditional Lithuanian headdress with the Infant Jesus. “Caritas et Amor” it says in Latin underneath. Charity and Love. In this remote corner of Amazonia, in 1973, the two virtues were alive and well.

A Tragic postscript

The Padre Medico’s hospital, named “Bom Pastor” (The Good Shepherd), was finally finished and fully outfitted in 1977. By then it had grown to 136 beds and a staff of 60. There were now six doctors, one dentist, and one full-time midwife on hand. Dr. Vytautas Kiausas, from Australia, also worked there for a time.

In 1983, Dr. Bendoraitis built a maternity clinic and children’s hospital in Guayaramerin, a twin town on the Bolivian side of the Mamore River. Except that there they speak Spanish, while in Guajara-Mirim, on the Brazilian side, they speak Portuguese. Dr. Bendoraitis moved permanently to the Bolivian side in 1984. His first love, The Good Shepherd Hospital, was taken over by the Guajara-Mirim diocese.

Dr. Bendoraitis, who had a history of heart problems (a heart attack and a heart-valve operation), succumbed to congestive heart failure in November, 1998.

Sister Mary Xavier, his indispensable helpmate for 37 long and often hard years, suffered a terrible fate. Satan must have whispered into someone’s ear that all good deeds must be punished. Sister Mary Xavier was murdered in cold blood in December 2000. She was found on a garden path with her head bashed in.

She and Bendoraitis – jungle doctor, jungle priest – rest together in the reddish soil of Guayaramerin, Bolivia. Side by side in death as they had served others side by side in life. ?

Honored for stopping epidemics in South America. Bolivian Defense Minister A. Crespo (r.) presents Dr. F. A. Bendoraitis with the Naval Merit Medal and a Lt. Commander’s commission in Bolivia’s Riverine Navy’s Medical Corps. (Bolivia is landlocked.) Dr. Bendoraitis also received an honorary Bolivian citizenship in 1967
Honored for stopping epidemics in South America. Bolivian Defense Minister A. Crespo (r.) presents Dr. F. A. Bendoraitis with the Naval Merit Medal and a Lt. Commander’s commission in Bolivia’s Riverine Navy’s Medical Corps. (Bolivia is landlocked.) Dr. Bendoraitis also received an honorary Bolivian citizenship in 1967